There is a lot to read about studying abroad, both positives and negatives. With any educational program or method, there’s bound to be loads of speculation and debate that come with it. Having been fortunate enough to study abroad during my own years as an undergraduate, I have been able to experience the pros and cons of the process. I have also seen many friends and classmates do the same in other countries, cities and programs.
There is a certain stigma that often surrounds studying abroad, generally from those who believe that the process is all just a “glorified vacation” or an opportunity for underage (by U.S. law) students to partake in a blurry haze of binge drinking and foreign hook-ups. Well, I can at least counter those two opinions due to the fact that I probably spent more money on my Oyster Card than I did on nights out at bars or clubs (as a matter of fact I did not go to any clubs during my time abroad), and I traveled to London with my boyfriend of several years (we somehow managed to spend most of our time together without driving each other insane).
Although it was incredible to visit Oktoberfest in Munich and visit the countryside of Germany, Michael and I split a pint of Hofbräuhaus so that we could each have a plate of authentic, German cuisine alongside some very friendly (absolutely obliterated), German & English-speaking South Africans in the HB beer tent. One enthusiastic gentlemen even shared a large pretzel with me (and by shared, I mean took a large bite out of my pretzel, after he decided the piece I gave him wouldn’t do). It was an adventure that I will never forget (especially being sober enough to take tons of pictures and write notes for my travel blog)!
Studying abroad with Michael guaranteed that we would each have support through the chaotic excursions we planned, and the culture shock of adjusting to another country. It is also immensely helpful that Michael is fluent in Spanish, speaks Italian very well, and is much better at navigation and map-reading than I am (I make up for my lacking sense of direction with cuteness and being able to roughly communicate in French, and understand thick accents relatively well). Although I highly advocate trying new experiences on your own, I also found that it was an incredible learning and growing experience that I could take advantage from with my best friend. I assure you, that even if you are the only person from your entire college/university traveling to a study abroad program, you will form new friendships and relationships that will last longer than your trip. Keep an open mind, be confident in yourself, and immerse yourself in your new environment.
During your study abroad program, you will also have the opportunity to learn about and observe cultures that may be radically different than your own. Despite language barriers, you will see the variety of ways in which people dress, speak, eat, interact with one another, drive…even sleep (if you stay in multi-bed hostels - the Flying Pig in Amsterdam is an excellent choice, fyi). Although you might feel a bit out of place, awkward and unprepared at times, just remember that you are a student (no matter your age, class year, major or occupation - you do not literally need to be enrolled in school to be a student), and your main purpose is to learn. One of the most important recommendations I can provide is to be polite, cautious, and curious. If you treat others with respect, they will generally always do the same for you (this comes in handy when you find yourself in a tricky situation).
Prepare for the unexpected. There’s no doubt that you have heard horror stories about missed flights, pick-pockets, or getting lost. Lucky enough for me, I only experienced 2 out of these 3 troubles. During a fall break trip throughout Italy, Michael and I were late to our Rome to Venice flight, and in order to keep our hostel reservations, Michael had to run to the gate and (barely) make the flight, whilst I waited for the next flight out, 13 hours later. I had to pay a penalty fee for a new ticket (I believe it was over 100 euros), and navigate the foreign airport by myself with our clunky (and admittedly unnecessary) suitcase that wasn’t admitted onto our closed-gate flight. Although I have a limited Italian vocabulary (pretty much “yes/no” and “thank you” were really all I had in my arsenal), I made it safe and sound to venice on my first flight completely alone. This might seem like a small victory to many experienced travelers, but being as my study abroad experience was my first international trip ever, I was quite proud of myself. That’s they key! Take pride in your small victories, and cherish the big lessons that they teach you. (note: we realized that although our trip was 10 days long, we probably should have roughed it by packing our belongings into backpacks, rather than lugging a suitcase the entire way…especially through the steep hills of Cinque Terre - a must-see destination).
By taking the time to plan your adventure and explore entirely new places, you sure as hell will learn a TON about the world around you. More than you ever thought possible. To this, I advise you to remember as much as you can. Pictures will certainly help, but don’t let the lens of a camera, or the screen of your iPhone take away from the first glimpse you get of the ancient pillars of Rome’s breathtaking colosseum. Keep a blog or a journal, or even a note page on your phone or iPod to write little blurbs about the things and people you see. By doing this, you will have stories to take with you as you return home, and as you plan for your next big adventure. You will learn about these new places and ideas and lifestyles, and you will also learn about your own.
While you’re away, you will begin to realize what is truly important to you in your own life, in your own home. While you’re away, you’ll realize that it’s not uncommon to get a frequent cold due to public transportation and frequent flights (I was perpetually sick during my time away), but it’s also not uncommon to fight through the runny nose and sore throat so you can spend a weekend in Paris, instead of in a comatose state in bed. While you’re away, you will get homesick from time to time: maybe because you’re always sick, or maybe because you miss your family (I missed my family’s dual celebration of Thanksgiving & my grandmother’s 80th birthday in warm, sunny Florida). BUT…when you come home, things will never be the same.
When you come home, the littlest things will remind you of your home abroad (tea, Harry Potter, buses, any sort of public transportation, Harry Potter, curry, cider, Harry Potter, Barclays, anything Union Jack printed, did I mention Harry Potter?). When you come home, you will see how many luxuries you have and how many superfluous actions take up your time. Do you really need that trendy new dress that you bought, but left at home because you didn’t want to ruin it on your trip abroad? Do you really need to text your best friend every minute of every day, even though you rarely used a phone at all whilst you were away? Is it super necessary to go out every weeknight, when all you could really afford in London was cheap wine at Tesco?
I hope that everyone has the opportunity to one day study (or just travel) somewhere far, somewhere new, and somewhere that puts you entirely out of your element. It doesn’t have to be across an ocean (although I hope it is, one day). Life is a journey, but it can also be an adventure. Make the most of it!